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Senior Advisor of Corporate Social Impact Erin Ceynar shares how the philanthropic partner and nonprofit accelerator helps its clients craft and stand by authentic social-impact efforts, even in the face of headwinds.
Globally, the corporate social-impact ecosystem is at an inflection point. There
has been a more significant push for transparency for businesses by stakeholders
— specifically on issues relating to human
There has also been a shift from the traditional model of shareholder capitalism
— where companies prioritize shareholder
above all else; towards stakeholder
where businesses are also accountable to all stakeholders — including employees,
consumers, communities and the environment. However, against a backdrop of wars
in Europe and the Middle East, global inflation, energy markets in
turmoil, and ongoing political uncertainty and climate-fueled
corporate social impact/responsibility is under a watchful eye — and being
criticized for not being productive for businesses or the communities they aim
To understand the current corporate social-impact landscape and the barriers it
faces, Sustainable Brands® sat down with Erin
Ceynar, Senior Advisor of Corporate
Social Impact at Tides — a philanthropic partner and
nonprofit accelerator that collaborates with donors, foundations, businesses and
other social enterprises to promote and facilitate change in various societal
areas. At Tides, Ceynar helps clients build strategic-investment programs from
the ground up — including consumer activation and smaller impact efforts such as
employee engagement. Her work includes designing and facilitating a
participatory grantmaking process that encourages companies to shift from a
transactional approach to a trust-based one.
We asked how her nearly 20 years’ experience in philanthropy and social impact
helps her organization and its clients navigate such volatile times.
Erin Ceynar: Tides is a nonprofit and philanthropic organization committed to
advancing social justice. We’re about shifting power and centering equity in
everything we do. We have deep connections with not only donors — including
companies — but also doers. Since 1976, we’ve partnered with companies open and
willing to begin investing in programs that center justice and equity to create
meaningful social outcomes. My portfolio includes companies at all stages of
their corporate social-impact journey. But the thread that runs through all of
them is a willingness to use their resources and influence to invest in a just
and equitable society. Tides takes companies through the entire process of
developing their corporate social-impact goals — from building a concrete vision
and point of view through strategy implementation to best practices, protocols
and integral operations. We can be an extension of a company’s social-impact
team — supporting all facets of the work, ensuring that every dollar is used
effectively and efficiently, and that impact is measured through their theory of
change and ESG.
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EC: Undoubtedly, the corporate social-impact ecosystem is enduring
growth and retraction. Some days, the pendulum is swinging forward; and some
days, I feel whiplash. Companies are being challenged by their stakeholders,
both customers and employees, to make meaningful social investments. And they
don’t want words; they want
At the same time, corporate social-impact programs are being asked to do more
with less. There have been cuts to staff and budgets; but with so many critical
social-justice issues at stake — the climate
and fundamental human rights like access to voting, health and education —
companies must, at a minimum, stay the course on their social-impact goals.
Better yet, they must double down and commit to deepening their impact. For most
companies we work with, staying steady in their social-impact programs through
turbulence means exploring new ways of connecting social-impact work to core
business efforts. Setting up a sustainable, integrated, corporate social-impact
means it's more likely to resonate with employees and customers; they see
themselves reflected in the company’s purpose. Time and time again, these
programs weather all kinds of uncertainty — be it economic, leadership change, a
pandemic, etc. These companies must remember that they aren’t just investing in
community outcomes; they’re building their brand and reputation.
EC: My work as a Senior Advisor in corporate social impact means I interact
with many different companies. Throughout the year, companies run the gamut
about engaging employees or having a pulse on employees' expectations. Many toe
a fine line — especially on the heels of layoffs and reorganizations. Engaging
employees has to be meaningful; it has to be authentic. If it isn't, employees
will read right through it. Some companies do this well. Some not.
Employee engagement can be everything from volunteer events to highly specific,
skills-based volunteering. The outcomes for both may vary. Single-experience
employee volunteering is often low impact for the nonprofit but high impact for
employees. When we help our partners think about engaging employees, we’re
focused on aligning those engagement programs with the employees' desires, the
company’s goals and its bottom line.
Importantly, it’s no longer okay for companies to stay agnostic on social
Younger employees are pushing for brands to take a stand from within; and
younger customers are also making their expectations known by where they spend
their money. Social-impact programs are a critical component of attracting and
retaining top talent. These programs reflect the values of the company and many
of the employees who work there. They motivate, inspire and give power to their
employees — who may become more likely to stay with these companies for the long
EC: Sometimes, it’s not so much what companies are doing, but how they
are doing it. Could their corporate philanthropy be more nonprofit-centric?
Could their volunteer programs focus on impact rather than outputs? Could their
center on communities often left behind by national or global efforts? Could
they be using their real estate for social good? Could they be activating their
customers to be better citizens of the world by using their communication
channels? Could they shine more light on historically marginalized
in their corporate philanthropy? Every company has the opportunity to use its
positional power for good: A recent poll by
found that “80 percent of US employees believe it is the responsibility of
company leaders to take action in addressing racial justice and equity issues.”
Don’t stay on the sidelines.
As an advisor, it is my ethical responsibility to amplify the work of
historically marginalized communities. I want to sit at the table when
corporations build their corporate social-impact programs. If invited, I provide
a viewpoint often not heard within business circles. Investing in organizations
with leaders who share the identity, lived experience, and/or
of the community they serve is a highly effective way to drive impact and
improve relationships with the communities a company seeks to support.
Communities and their leaders know what they need to thrive; and there is
that nonprofits led by and for people closest to a community or issue are more
innovative and better problem-solvers. However, only 4 percent of US
philanthropic dollars go to organizations led by people of
most impacted by systemic inequity. For companies, this means that there is an
opportunity and an obligation to stand out by supporting under-resourced and
highly effective grassroots organizations.
EC: Companies need to take a hard look at their purpose. What are they
solving for? How are they showing up in the world? Are you doing more harm than
good? And if the company is doing some damage, how might they mitigate that with
authenticity and integrity?
Backlash is noise and often doesn’t matter much. What does matter is a corporate
regulatory environment that will only see more, not less, mandatory reporting in
the future — despite backlash coming primarily from vocal
media and sometimes employees. Take, for instance, the recent chilling effect
we’re witnessing with corporate DEI on the heels of the Supreme Court's
affirmative-action decision regarding college admissions. The shifting legal
landscape doesn’t mean it’s time to step back on DEI efforts. Companies can’t
afford to. By 2045, this country is on track to have mostly people of
Aside from the moral and ethical imperative to advance equity and social
justice, business has no choice but to prioritize DEI to serve customers,
attract the best talent, and reach new markets. The Supreme Court’s ruling
doesn’t change these facts.
I do advise businesses to ask their legal counsel to partner with them in
protecting companywide DEI efforts; this isn’t about rolling back DEI programs
but about protecting them. Lastly, ensure you socialize how core DEI is to your
company's success. Gaining internal alignment will dispel internal
EC: Full disclosure: I have a graduate degree in Sociology. That said, I
find the ‘S’ in
very important. I encourage companies to start reporting more consistently on S
data. These standards start from the ground up. Irrespective of rating agencies,
companies have their own fiduciary duty to measure and disclose material S
Companies are beginning to see that they can’t wait for the world to agree on
corporate performance standards on racial and social justice. We’re seeing
early-adopter corporations stepping up with S impact
And honestly, more ESG investor funds require it. There is no doubt that S
impact data is complex; it cannot be simply captured in a survey. It requires
specialized taxonomies, questionnaires and independent verification.
In the next
five years, we’ll see S impact data informing a company’s growth potential,
competitive employee advantage, new market potential and more. At Tides, we know
that focusing solely on the environment only gets you so far. People live on
this planet; and we need to measure their
Creating better S data gives the market something to price. That said, we will
see practitioners of corporate social impact buying “outcomes'' in social
marketplaces, similar to how one accepts
now. The ‘E’ in ESG has led innovation in this area. Organizations like Impact
OutcomesX are changing this narrative; they’re
building a market where nonprofits can sell their measurable and verified
socially positive outcomes.
Published Oct 12, 2023 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
As a corporate sustainability professional, Fatima Fasih is optimistic about a future where businesses are transparent about their impact and motivated to do more good for profit, people and our planet. A graduate of the esteemed MSs Sustainability Management program of the University of Toronto and a GRI-certified professional, Fatima has experience working with several businesses worldwide and guiding them on their sustainability journey. She started her sustainability career working in off-grid Pakistan and assessing the impact of solar technology on rural communities; recently, she founded her own sustainability consulting business, Enviro6. When she's not working, Fatima enjoys painting, traveling, and exploring the Philippines with her husband and 3-year-old.
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.